Underground Oceans Discovered on Titan

With each flyby, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been building up the case that there are lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. But now we get the stunning news that the planet might have vast oceans of water and ammonia underneath its surface as well.

Over the course of 19 separate Cassini Titan flybys, members on the mission science team carefully established the position of 50 unique landmarks on the surface of the moon. After each flyby, they located the landmarks again, and marked their positions.

During nearly 2 years of flybys, from October 2005 to May 2007, surface features had moved from their original positions by up to 30 km (19 miles). The only way the surface could be shifting like this is if the moon’s icy crust is floating atop an internal ocean.

“We believe that about 62 miles beneath the ice and organic-rich surface is an internal ocean of liquid water mixed with ammonia,” said Bryan Stiles of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in, Pasadena, Calif.

Since Titan has an incredibly thick atmosphere, 1.5 times more dense than the Earth, it’s possible that powerful winds are rocking the moon back and forth around its axis. It might be speeding the rotation up at one point in the year, and then slowing it back down again. But this would only be possible if there’s an ocean underneath the surface that the entire crust floats on top of.

“The combination of an organic-rich environment and liquid water is very appealing to astrobiologists,” said Ralph Lorenz, lead author of the paper and Cassini radar scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. “Further study of Titan’s rotation will let us understand the watery interior better, and because the spin of the crust and the winds in the atmosphere are linked, we might see seasonal variation in the spin in the next few years.”

Researchers will get another chance to test their theories shortly. Cassini is due to make another Titan flyby on March 25th, at an altitude of only 1,000 km (620 miles).

The research will be published in the March 21st issue of the journal Science.

Original Source: NASA News Release

14 Replies to “Underground Oceans Discovered on Titan”

  1. This moon could be a habitat in stock. Like an icebox, conserving the ingredients of life till the epoch when the sun will have turned into a red giant and swallow the earth and the habitable zone will expand away from the inner solar system to it’s outskirts.

  2. I like that idea.What do you people think of the possiblity of life,past or present on Cassini if the ocean body is real????? 1-100%Please post.
    I think 50 %

  3. I’m confident that liquid water equals life in some shape or form, past or present, so I’ll boldy say 100%. How easy will it be to find, however? Will we even find something in our lifetime? Who knows, but I’m confident if this holds true that there will be life found there (and elsewhere in our own backyard).

  4. Darious, there is not only the possiblity of life in past or present on Titan but also in future. It is estimated that the earth will be extinct when the sun possibly transforms into a red giant. Possibly, the habitable zone in our solar system will then will be located further outward. So Titan possibly will lie in this zone in some billion of years. Maybe Titan will “defrost” and life will start not till then on Titan.

  5. fascinating. titan is without a doubt one of the most interesting bodies in the solar system.

    as for the possibility of life, i’d give it about 2%, but that’s a better cahnce than i would have given it before reading this article.

  6. Darious:

    Life on Titan surface 0% (way too cold for life)
    Subterranean life on Titan 0% (way too cold for life)

    Consider that Ethanol and Methanol (if located on the surface; located underground too) are active ingredients in antifreeze, so a subterranean liquid water suspension is no surprise. (possible gravitational/thermal tidal heating)

    Basically, Titan is too cold above and below ground. If you consider that Ammonia (NH3) boils at -33.34°C (239.81 K) we know the subterranean temperature on Titan is below -33°C for Ammonia to be present as a liquid.

    Your Freudian slip however, might induce deeper discussion:
    Terrestrial microbial life on Huygens (now on Titan) – Have we contaminated Titan for the distant future?

  7. Fah, I say.

    “…in other news, the peace conference between the Titanians and Earth ended in disaster as the volatile atmospheres mixed and exploded. Authorities believe that a cigarette was the likely culprit. No word from the Titanian government as of yet…”

    Life on Titan is no less possible than life in a geothermal vent. Before that came out, I’d have laughed at microbes in boiling poisonous gas venting from the bottom of the ocean. I’ll say 7%.

  8. lol @ The Scott

    You know that normally I’d agree with you Jimmy. But as we have yet to discover any terrestrial life form that can survive Titan’s surface temperature of about 94 K (−179 °C, or −290 °F), not even extremophils that you refer to; I’d still place the chances of life on Titan at 0%. It’s simply too far away from the sun.


    That’s not to say that in the next 10 billion years or so, life won’t spark off as it did on Earth though…


  9. It’s awfully naiive to say that life can’t exist on Titan because it’s too cold or because it’s too far from the sun. Perhaps there’s a form of life there that is more tolerant of lower temperatures than anything found on earth.

    I think it’s safe to say 50% because we don’t know enough to give either side of the argument an advantage.

  10. Jimitre, what is the probability p that god does exist? p and not p equal 1. p is faith. Not p is doubt. While the possibility q to know about the existence of god is q=0.

    One can also claim that “it’s awfully naiive to say that life can’t exist on the sun because it’s too hot or because it’s too near at the sun.”

    We also could establish a new religion in which life on Titan is responsible for good and evil here on earth.

  11. “The only way the surface could be shifting like this is if the moon’s icy crust is floating atop an internal ocean.”

    “But this would only be possible if there’s an ocean underneath the surface that the entire crust floats on top of.”

    Elsewhere it is claimed that also different explanations do exist for the shifting of the surface. It is also not clear how such a liquid layer could have developed between a solid core and a solid crust.

  12. “Authorities believe that a cigarette was the likely culprit.

    Sure blame the smokers. We are truely evil people!!


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